Review of Senior Moments by Willard Spiegelman

At first I was put off by the title of this book. “Senior Moment” comes with negative connotations. People of any age have moments of forgetfulness. Saying, “I’m having a senior moment!” puts yourself down and reinforces the stereotype.

Spiegelman reinforces other stereotypes as well. “After all,” he says, “at a certain age one doesn’t sleep well to begin with…” I’m curious to know the age he has in mind. I’m not young and I sleep like a log almost every night, unless I have jet lag or get pulled from sleep when the cat yowls.

On page 125, he writes, “One virtue any senior citizen ought to possess is patience…” and I become very impatient with this sentiment. Why give people an excuse to keep you waiting? Medical offices in particular assume that if you’re above a certain age, you don’t mind waiting, and they are free to squeeze people in ahead of you.

On page 153, he says that at the fiftieth reunion, nobody cares what you do … just how you are, with undertones of health. “Voltaire wisely remarked that after eighty all contemporaries are friends. They know where they are going and they are going there both alone and together.” I’ve got a ways to go before eighty but doubt I’ll agree, ever.

Age doesn’t guarantee bonds of common interest, and this type of statement encourages those who want to isolate older people; an improv class here in my city was targeted to “45 and older.” I’d be more interested in whether they were doing scene work, characters or games.

On page 29, he says, “Here is a formula for staying young well beyond the days of youth: Grow old in a place where you do not think you belong. You will feel like an adolescent, because adolescents always consider themselves outsiders. Then, after decades, just as you have gradually habituated yourself to your surroundings, pack up and leave. It is time for another, perhaps the final, beginning.”

That’s an intriguing idea, although I have trouble following along. I’m not sure why it’s advantageous to feel like an adolescent or why feeling like an outsider triggers feelings and behaviors of adolescence. I’ve lived in places as an outsider and I felt…well, like an outsider.

However, as the author of a book on relocation, I’d add that there’s much to gain from taking advantage of local color. Spiegelman refuses to get involved in sports talk, yet following the Cowboys and the Mavericks and (most recently) the WNBA Wings can be enjoyable and rewarding.

Senior Moments is a collection of essays, a series of first-person opinions. Having reviewed many collections of essays, I am surprised at my reaction.

Most contemporary essays delve into the author’s personal life, showing them in their most vulnerable moments, exposing their most intimate secrets. Spiegelman keeps focused on the bigger picture. Yet I found myself wondering about the more personal side of the story.

For instance, Spiegelman refers to his partner. Many essayists would share the details. While I admire his discretion and outward focus, I can’t help wondering what it would be like to live in Texas as a gay person in the 70s, 80s and most of the 90s. My own experience with the south is that everyone’s very interested in your family, love life and religion.

It’s not clear why Spiegelman devotes so much time and analysis to his 4-day high school reunion. I’ve been to one high school reunion and several college reunions. The best part of my college reunions involved spending time with very smart women and, in some cases, listening to good lectures and talks. The people I seek out now are not the same as those I spent time with as an undergrad; I’ve changed and they have. The bottom line is that everyone’s reunion experiences will be different, people have short memories and it’s not worth over-thinking the experience.

But the collection also brings us some special insights. I love what Spiegelman says about restaurants: even in the most upscale venues, you’re drowned out by noise. I can’t help wondering if that’s why the restaurant industry notes declining participation and declining participation. Why bother going out if you can’t talk to the people at your table?

I particularly resonated with the chapter “Quiet,” as I too search for silence. I feel for his question, “Do we really need CNN in airports or music in restaurants?” I would add, “Why are we forced to listen to television in medical offices?”

We forget that there was a time when people didn’t listen to music continually, due to the absence of portable listening devices. Some people have grown up with noise blaring in their homes during all their waking hours. They can’t handle silence.

I also like his thoughts on cars. As he says, driving can make it easy to be alone and even lonely.

And I resonated with the comments on reading. I also read compulsively, and now read shorter works and nonfiction, as he does. But I don’t share his puzzlement to find that very few people are reading books in flight. Airlines have become so miserable, it is hard to concentrate; I find myself escaping with videos myself. After all, you can’t read without turning up the earphones to a level that risks deafness.

“No Spouse, No Kids…Prepare to Age Alone”

Finally a mainstream publication recognizes that many in the aging population don’t have “the family” to care for them. It’s worth reading here.

It’s positioned in an upbeat way, suggesting that you can take control of your life in these circumstances.

Like most journalists, the author chooses the condescending term “elder orphans,” implying that those aging alone are helpless victims. The terms also invokes a touch of insulting humor, with the contrast of “elder” and “orphan.” An orphan is someone who has lost both parents.

Applied to any adult, the term seems irrelevant. It’s the absence of children and spouses that leaves the aging person with no source of help, yet exposed to considerable abuse, including abuse from mainstream medical professionals.

Additionally, the story ignores reality. It very difficult to find a proxy who’s willing to step up and who’s reliable, especially if you’re a “pull the plug” kind of person.

And it’s not that easy to stay connected. Age discrimination is social as well as economic. The elderly are considered irrelevant in our society.

But at least we are acknowledging that there IS a problem. That’s a good first step. Now we need to hear from more people who fear this situation.

Talking To Younger People About Growing Old

A reminder of aging comes at the treadmill in the gym. At 85, Robert Goldfarb notices the graphs for runners’ heart rate goes up to age 70 and stops. It’s a reminder that he is “now officially one of the old-old.” Writing for the The New York Times, his article Talking To Younger Men About Growing Old reminds us that a lot of the frustrations with aging come not from our bodies, but from the way we are defined totally by our age, not by any other factor.

At age 85, Goldfarb is a competitive runner. Yet airport employees come rushing over with wheelchairs and offers of early boarding. (Frankly, I’d take those offers even if I were 55…or 35.)

Goldfarb finds that men his own age don’t want to talk about aging. As he says, men of his generation “regarded feelings as something to be endured, not discussed… Men in my platoon didn’t embrace when we parted after serving in the Korean War. Closer than brothers, we settled for a handshake, knowing that’s what men did.”

What Goldfarb describes is a cohort effect, which many people confuse with an aging effect. We often associate aging with the behaviors of our parents or grandparents, forgetting that when we reach their age, we won’t be like them.

I look at the 30-somethings in my gym who participate in boot camp classes. These classes didn’t exist when I was their age. In particular, women just didn’t do the kinds of exercises we do in class, unless they joined the US Marine Corps (and maybe not even then). Thirty years from now, these totally fit women won’t be moving like their great-grandmothers.

If you want another example, we used to see little old ladies riding on the buses, all dressed up to go shopping. They’d carry a tiny shopping bag from a high-quality store – just one little bag, which suggested they were shopping just for something to do, and felt they had to buy something. They’d be wearing heels and hose, with full make-up.

I remember telling a Canadian colleague, “One day these women will be gone.”

“Where will Eaton’s be?” he teased, referring to a Canadian store that somewhat resembled Macys.

Today Eaton’s is gone and so are the old ladies. I ride the bus in gym shorts and see women of all ages in jeans, sweats and yes, shorts. They wear short sleeves with their bra straps showing, sandals and sneakers. They shop on the Internet and make friends on Facebook.

Cohort effects trump age a good deal of the time.

Celebrating A Birthday … WHY?

Some things probably shouldn’t make it to the Internet. Today someone posted on LinkedIn about turning 60. He wrote a whole LI article too for all the world to see. I’m sure he meant well so I’m reluctant to post a link here. But his post embodies many stereotypes of aging.

This guy writes: One thing that becoming an old guy gives me is the right to write an article about what I’ve learned along the pathway that constitutes my life.

Saying you get wise with age is just another way of saying that biological age is related to abilities and skills. I know a guy who’s 32 going on 45 and some people who are in their 60s going on 12. Saying that you now get the “right” to share your views is another way to differentiate yourself from others in a meaningless way. You’ll scare off potential friends, employees and clients.

So what if you’re 60? You’re an expert in some things but not others. Simply living a long time doesn’t mean anything. Just look at some of our politicians.

As it turns out, the wisdom he offers consists of a bunch of cliches and opinions that come out of left field. For instance, “A dog will mourn you when you die, a cat will eat you. Just sayin’.”

Sixty years of living to learn that?

Then there’s “Always take a leak in the other man’s toilet.” I have no idea what that means.

Dan Ariely Adds Insult To Advice

In his WSJ column, Dan Ariely does half-facetious Q&A from the standpoint of a behavioral economist. Alas, instead of sticking to economics, Ariely can’t resist the temptation to turn into Dear Abby from time to time.

Case in point. In the June 11 column, someone asks about a gift for a 45-year-old coworker.

Dan recommends getting the person reading glasses. I’m not making this up. He says people delay getting reading glasses because they don’t want to admit they’re aging and/or they don’t realize their vision is deteriorating.

“If you give your friend a pair,” says Dan Ariely, “you will spare him the procrastination, and he will immediately realize that he has been living in a blurry world. He might not immediately feel deep appreciation, but it would still be a very helpful present.”

Here’s how I responded in the Comments:

Glasses to a 45-year-old? You are saying that the only factor in choosing a gift is the person’s age, and then adding a false stereotype about age.

First, the stereotype. Not everyone needs reading glasses at 45, 50 or even older. Reading glasses have to be chosen for the individual’s eyesight. So the idea isn’t even practical.

Second, if someone asked about a gift for a gay friend, would you recommend Judy Garland records or a rainbow flag? Doesn’t your coworker have an identity beyond his age?

For anybody’s birthday, your gift choice should be guided by your friend’s interests if (and only if) you know them. It’s insulting to give a tea set to a coffee drinker, or to give a box of candy to someone who’s allergic to half the ingredients. Give an Amazon gift certificate.

Dan Ariely would never be allowed to take a dig at statuses like being black, Asian, Jewish, or gay. Yet an insensitive, equally objectionable reference to age? No problem.

Aging By The Numbers

Something to think about:

Paul Westhead was 68 years old when he coached the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA championship.
Marynell Meadors coached the Atlanta Dream while she was 64 to 69 years old (including playoff appearances).
Bernie Sanders runs for president of the United States at 74.
Donald Trump and Hilly Clinton run for president at 69.
Joan Rivers won The Apprentice at 75.

Nobody would hire people of their ages for a corporate management or academic professorial job.

But it’s important to realize that in some ways these people are outliers. They benefit from a combination of genes and opportunities – seeds sown before they reached their sixties.

When looking at age, it’s about the variance, not the mean.

Pride and pitfalls of being an aging role model

Time Magazine – March 28, 2016 – page 62. The View Point Column.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes, “But being a black role model is a double-edged sword of inspiration and frustration…The frustration for the black role model is knowing that thought you are proof it can be done – a happy lottery winner waving a million dollar ticket – the odds are so astronomically stacked against you that it sometimes feels as if you’re more a source of false hope and crushed dreams. A casino shill they let win so the suckers will keep playing the slots…”

If you’re black and you fail, he says, people will say “blacks aren’t up to the task.” If you succeed, they’ll say you had advantages from being black.

Let’s try replacing “black” with “aging.”

If you’re old and you fail (or, quite literally, fall), people will say, “It’s your age. What do you expect?”

If you’re old and you dance, work out or perform outstanding feats with technology, they say, “You’re doing well for your age.” Never mind that what you’re doing would be impressive at any age.

I once saw a television interviewer exclaiming over a white-haired woman who was jumping out of airplanes. That’s something most people won’t do, at any age. But the focus was on how old she was.

I get annoyed when younger women at the gym say, “You are amazing.” I’ve been working out for over 30 years. I’m in better shape than some younger people. Even doctors – on the rare occasions I see them – admit I’m in shape.

But I also must have gotten some good genes. And being old is still far from being a picnic, unless you’re running for president.

The Great Bone Density Myth

There’s very little evidence that “preventive” actions make a difference, especially in those over 65.

Bone density scans also are highly recommended but other measures (e.g., muscle tone, ability to rise from a chair) predict fractures more and bone density doesn’t predict hip fractures, as discussed here. I’d like to see references to articles showing that people on meds for cholesterol, high blood pressure, etc., actually experience different end points than those who are not screened. Often when you actually read those articles you find the relative differences are huge but the actual differences are barely noticeable. When you start quoting journal articles to doctors the conversation changes.

Aging and Being Single: Grandmother Hormones

Today’s New York Times Style section included an article, The Bliss of Grandmother Hormones by Dominique Browning.

She has a remarkably frank comment about aging:
“When we’re young, aging looks sort of yucky; frankly, even though it is extremely un-P.C. to say so, it looks sort of yucky when we get there, too. Hence, the magical thinking around skin creams.”

It’s not clear what we’re to make of that comment. Is she saying that yes, older people are ugly and therefore worthy of discrimination?

But, she says, all these concerns about aging disappear when one enjoys the pleasure of holding “a six-pound newborn boy” against “a heart burnished with the patina of age.”

Probably true. As a single person, I get a lot of pleasure out of holding my cat or snuggling with the dog. Age is a non-issue. Just mutual acceptance.

Maybe I should try for an op-ed about that. Not as PC as grandmothers but surprisingly common.

Geriatric Psychiatrist in WSJ Says Adventure Leads To Depression

It’s Time To Think The Bucket List After Retirement by Marc E. Agronin

This article reinforces stereotypes of seniors as soft, cuddly nurturers. Many people over 60 are childless. Many prefer to work for money rather than volunteer (especially for organizations that pay their executives handsomely, such as hospitals and nursing homes). Some just like to travel.

A geriatric psychiatrist should know better than to stereotype “older brains.” Some people take more risks as they get older; novelty-seeking is a personality trait. Having never been especially conscientious or maternal, I doubt that I’ll transform when I hit a magic number.

Here’s what he writes about his patient “Dora:”

“She and her husband spent several months and considerable treasure each year after retirement traveling to a bucket list of exotic locales, but found themselves feeling increasingly alienated from family and friends who did not share in their adventures. Their children complained that they seemed more interested in spending time with itinerant acquaintances than with their grandchildren. Several friends became reticent to invite them on weekend outings, fearing that any such plans paled in comparison with their many adventures.” (more…)